Should Toy Manufacturers Be Worried About 3D Printing?
Ian Wright posted on July 20, 2017 |
Study shows DIY manufacturing could put a serious dent in the $135-billion toy and game market.
This year's HxGN LIVE had a Lego smart city with miscellaneous blocks scattered around the perimeter. I couldn't resist. (Image courtesy of the author.)
This year's HxGN LIVE had a Lego smart city with miscellaneous blocks scattered around the perimeter. I couldn't resist. (Image courtesy of the author.)
What red-blooded engineer doesn’t love Lego?

Whether you’re building autonomous robots, drones or record-breaking bridges, those little interlocking bricks have inspired generations of children and adults alike. And, as any Lego builder knows, the most frustrating thing—aside from accidentally embedding a piece in your foot—is not being able to find the particular block you need.

So, why not 3D print it?

A recent study by a team of engineers from Michigan Technological University and London-based MyMiniFactory indicates that this kind of thinking could have a multi-million-dollar impact on the toy and game market, which they project to be worth $135 billion USD by 2020.

 

3D Printing Toys at Home

The research team led by Joshua Pearce, a professor of materials science and electrical engineering at Michigan Tech, focused on how much a desktop 3D printer could save consumers.

"The 3D printing industry is now dominated by small, low-cost printers and as the industry grows we're going to see a lot more DIY manufacturing," Pearce said. "The evidence is just overwhelming that this makes sense from a consumer's perspective."

A 3D-printed board for Settlers of Catan. (Image courtesy of Thingiverse/Mystik738.)
A 3D-printed board for Settlers of Catan. (Image courtesy of Thingiverse/Mystik738.)
Pearce and his colleagues investigated the 100 most popular designs from MyMiniFactory, one of the dozens of online repositories for free 3D-printable designs. They used three different printing materials to analyze the potential costs of printing on an open source Lulzbot 3D printer—commercial filament, pellet-extruded filament  and post-consumer waste plastic converted to filament using a recyclebot.

Compared to similar commercially available toys, 3D printing with all three materials saved consumers at least 75 percent, with the recyclebot filament saving more than 90 percent. Using the data from a mere 100 toys (less than one percent of MyMiniFactory’s repository) the researchers found that consumers could offset $60 million per year in toy purchases.

It’s also worth noting that this is not a matter of copycat manufacturing, where counterfeit consumer goods are sold at significantly lower prices than the originals. In this case, not only can users 3D print toys that are functionally equivalent to their commercial counterparts, they can also make novel toys and games that are not commercially available.

A painted, 3D-printed AT-ST  from Star Wars. (Image courtesy of Thingiverse/duerro.)
A painted, 3D-printed AT-ST from Star Wars. (Image courtesy of Thingiverse/duerro.)
"It's one thing to buy a toy from a store or get a commodity toy for your children," said Pearce. "It's perhaps more valuable to get that exact, specific toy that your kid really wants that you can either design yourself or download and customize on your computer and print at home."

 

3D Printing Lego

To get a better sense of the potential impacts of 3D printing and what might drive consumers to pursue DIY manufacturing, Pearce and his team used Lego as an example. "Speaking as a parent, Legos are expensive. All parents know you can't find them at garage sales; everyone hoards them like they're gold," Pearce said. "Now you can make custom compatible blocks and have that same kind of fun while playing with something you made yourself."

Each block is made from a different plastic using a different process. Can you spot the real one? (Image courtesy of Joshua Pearce.)
Each block is made from a different plastic using a different process. Can you spot the real one? (Image courtesy of Joshua Pearce.)
A key aspect of DIY manufacturing is judging how well the home-printed version matches the store-bought one. With building blocks, an acetone-smoothing process went a long way to make recycled ABS plastic look like the brand name and generic versions—with a steep cut in price.

A standard Lego block costs six cents; the generic, three cents; and a recyclebot-sourced, 3D-printed block is half a cent.

Pearce's team showed significant savings—typically between 40 to 90 percent—even with complex toys like chess sets, math puzzles, toy trucks, action figures and board games. The only time the 3D-printed version didn't save money was where the quality of the 3D print significantly surpassed commercial options; this was particularly true for large and intricate costumes and accessories used in cosplay, where people dress up as characters from movies, TV shows and videogames.

 

The Future of Toy Manufacturing

So, what can toy manufacturers do to avoid being undercut by 3D-printing enthusiasts with a penchant for DIY toy manufacturing? The bad news is that it may already be too late.

Pearce says the data indicates that 3D printing is already having an impact on the industry, and this impact will only grow as 3D printers become more widespread. However, he suggests that the best route for toy and game companies going forward is to embrace 3D printing, much in the same way Ikea encouraged "Ikea hacks" with its furniture.

The board game Save the Planet is an open source, cooperative game that is adaptable and customizable, making it an educational tool that grows with kids and enables creative freedom with everything from its
The board game Save the Planet is an open source, cooperative game that is adaptable and customizable, making it an educational tool that grows with kids and enables creative freedom with everything from its "Good Deeds" cards to personalized game play figurines. The total cost with both 2D and 3D printing came to $2.89. (Image courtesy of Joshua Pearce.)
"One way toy companies might adapt is open-sourcing some of the designs of the toys themselves and focusing on currently unprintable components, or openly encouraging the maker community and open-source community to design accessories or add-ons to commercial toys to make their toys more valuable," Pearce said.

"This is already happening—there are literally millions of free designs,” he added. “Distributed home manufacturing is the future for toys, but also many other products. It would be a big mistake to assume 3D printers are just toys."

You can read Pearce and his colleagues’ published research in the journal Technologies.

Are you 3D printing toys for your kids (or yourself)? Share your story in the comments below.

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